TNRC Adria pilot summary


Increasing citizen engagement in spatial planning to reduce opportunities for corruption in protected areas

In 2020-2023, the Targeting Natural Resource Corruption (TNRC) project supported a range of global pilots to test anti-corruption approaches to address critical conservation challenges. Further information and learning from TNRC pilots can be found here.

In 2021-2022, WWF Adria worked in Serbia to target corruption risks in spatial planning—specifically the approval of construction in protected areas in violation of those protections. This pilot involved three approaches: analyzing laws related to construction and advocating for better compliance, mobilizing the community in response to identified failures to follow the law, and raising general awareness about the damage that corrupt spatial planning decisions can cause to people and the environment. This case study documents learning from that work.

Prefer a video? Watch this short summary documentary produced by WWF Adria to learn about this case study.

Unintended consequences, decisions in the dark

Serbia is home to some of the most beautiful riverine landscapes on the planet. The capital, Belgrade, sits at the confluence of the Sava and the iconic and internationally important Danube. In fact, over 90% of the country’s surface drains to the Danube, encompassing countless streams, tributaries, and smaller rivers.

Such hydrological riches naturally evoke thoughts of hydropower, which is often touted as a form of green, renewable energy. However, small hydropower plants can devastate the biodiversity of wild, free-flowing rivers, especially if deciding how many to build and where to site them happens in the shadows and for personal gain. Many of the resulting plants do not even produce any significant amount of electricity.

A plague of such problematic hydropower plants inspired the WWF Adria team to propose this pilot project. They identified spatial planning decisions as a major driver of environmental destruction, and in ways that extend beyond the problems illustrated by the hydropower example. As the team explained, “spatial plans are often used to overrule environmental acts… [and] the spatial planning process is not transparent. Citizens are technically eligible to comment on planning decisions, but the process is implemented in a way that makes participation difficult or impossible. As a result, decisions are largely made secretly and once completed they are irrevocable. In this way, individual interests become legalized.” There was strong evidence that these hidden decisions were indeed legalizing individual interests, allowing particular groups to gain financial and political benefit at the expense of the environment and the people of Serbia. “The results of such policies are visible across the country,” the team noted, “[including] in many protected areas.”

Implementation: A multi-pronged approach

To tackle this issue, WWF Adria pursued three tracks of activity: an analysis of the current decision-making process that was allowing these problems to occur, trainings to mobilize the community to take part in decision making, and broader awareness raising of the issue of corruption in decisions affecting natural resources.

Understanding the system

The team first held a political economy analysis workshop, to get a deeper understanding of corruption and refine their approaches. They identified two important assumptions underpinning their theory of change: that increasing the public’s understanding of corruption and of environmental rights would lead them to engage in decision making, and that this engagement would reduce the opportunity for corruption.

The team also contracted the Renewables and Environmental Regulatory Institute (RERI) to carry out an in-depth legal analysis on spatial planning in protected areas. RERI produced a useful mapping of the complex laws and regulatory processes. They also documented several concrete cases of construction in protected areas that omitted process steps or relied on regulations that were outdated or inappropriate but easier and less restrictive. While such mistakes could of course be innocent, as WWF Adria and RERI noted, it is certainly suspicious when consultations are intentionally rushed and complaints pointing out errors are aggressively ignored.

Map of the procedure for developing spatial and urban plans from the Manual for Serbian Civil Society Organizations with a focus on protected areas.

Building capacities, mobilizing communities

Once WWF Adria began training sessions and capacity building, the team realized that they had been operating on a few additional, prior assumptions. Specifically, they found a smaller number of active organizations at the local level than they expected, and those existing organizations did not necessarily have expertise and interest in long, administrative procedures like spatial planning.

The team built these findings into their plans. They slowed their pace to accommodate the longer time needed for sustained capacity building and spent more time on activities like mentorship and networking. They also dedicated more time to awareness raising, identifying potential participants and additional stakeholders, and finding [more?] cases for RERI’s analysis.

Increasing social awareness

WWF Adria employed an active media strategy from the start, announcing the project on social media, via press releases, and on local radio. To further supplement RERI’s analysis, the team crowdsourced corruption cases using social media. They also leveraged their other activities as communications opportunities. In addition to trainings on topics like understanding different planning documents and processes and procedures for reporting irregularities, they trained participants on broader communications and advocacy skills, such as the importance of thinking strategically, having an understandable and simple message, and targeting achievable, clear goals. They also made sure that RERI’s final report could serve as a “manual” for civil society organizations looking to get involved, capturing and detailing a lot of the same lessons as the trainings.

A final element of WWF Adria’s communication strategy was a social media campaign about the cases that RERI identified in their analysis. Legal involvement in those cases are one of the concrete results of this project.

Results: Following through on identified cases

WWF Adria and RERI did not just document case; they actively intervened to try and prevent further environmental damage and hold parties accountable. They pointed out omissions and illegalities during consultations, despite how rushed many of those consultations were. They filed access to information requests and commented on technical documentation, despite slow and selective responses. In one of the three cases, they had some success; the team reported that “public pressure influenced the decision-makers to abandon the original intentions to build a large-scale…facility” that would have violated the laws protecting that natural area. But in the two other cases, the violating plans continued in spite of the team’s efforts. As of the end of their pilot, the team was still considering additional legal measures, in addition to the communications campaigns that could add pressure for a resolution.

Although not as concrete as these cases, another still important result of the project was the network WWF Adria helped build through connecting and training stakeholders on spatial planning. Although the network is still informal, participants plan to continue monitoring and participating in spatial planning processes and to refine their capacities, especially those organizations working in or near protected areas.

Lessons learned and leveraged

The WWF Adria team reported several lessons that they were able to build into this project:

 Lesson 1  Question assumptions

The team initially underestimated the amount of training and support that would be necessary for their theory of change assumptions to hold true. For example, after realizing that some trainees were struggling to understand the spatial planning process, the team incorporated “specific examples of local planning…[which] proved to be very convenient since the participants could more easily understand local context (from their municipalities).”

 Lesson 2  Actively engage decision-makers

The main lesson the WWF Adria team took from this pilot was the need to work more proactively with professionals and officials involved in spatial planning, to promote better understanding and adherence to existing rules, as a complement to public participation. Most of their activities previously focused on detection and enforcement, reacting to problems and motivating the public to respond. As WWF Adria notes, although “the chances of corruption occurring in the case of high-quality and early public participation are significantly reduced…” via civic engagement, the risks are not necessarily eliminated. And once a corrupt decision occurs, the damage can be irrevocable. Therefore, the “imperative for improving this situation is strengthening…the system of prevention and suppression of corruption, as well as greater transparency and openness of institutions to the interested public….”

In order to secure that transparency and openness, WWF Adria is now establishing cooperation with public officials responsible for spatial planning processes. The hope is that those officials can become allies in providing the information needed for informed public engagement and taking correct, legally appropriate decisions. As WWF Adria reported, “When talking about corruption we usually generalize the public sector and often neglect that many of the people working there have high professional standards and oppose corrupt or bad practice…. Some experts (e.g., planners in local governments) are often under strong pressures from decision makers and investors…. These people should be consulted in the project development phase and possibly involved in the implementation…. However, this is highly delicate and should be carefully planned.”

Next steps

This pilot is an example of how a strong, multi-strategy activity, although not without challenges, can yield important returns if efforts are sustained and connected to other advocacy activities and strategies, and to broader, government-wide reforms. The team plans to continue working in this space, so that transparency and civic engagement will continue to influence spatial planning decisions that have the potential to damage the environment.

Annex: Final theory of change


Intermediate result
Threat reduction

Image attribution: © / Jen Guyton / WWF; © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF; © Georgina Goodwin / Shoot The Earth / WWF-UK; © Hkun Lat / WWF-Aus